China Miéville’s postmodern fantasies in “Three Moments of an Explosion”

The contemporary British fantasist China Miéville’s collection of short stories, Three Moments of an Explosion, is a diverse mix of styles, from experimental mind-benders (such as the title story) to genre-ic terror tales, all thrillingly tainted by the dread illogic of a nightmare. Miéville has embedded his work in the literary spaces between science fiction, horror, and fantasy, in the “weird fiction” tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, and Clark Ashton Smith.

Yet instead of a fannish imitator of masters of classic horror-fantasy, Miéville is an innovator from a deeper literary tradition whose influences seem to range from the occult paranoia of Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, (in Miéville’s “The Dowager of Bees” a pro gambler discovers the sinister, hidden suits of ordinary playing cards) to the existential surrealism of Jorge Luis Borges (“The Rope is the World”).

Three Moments will appeal firstly to those who geek-out to Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, X-Files progenitor Charles Fort, and Symbolist author J.K. Huysmans. Miéville, too, zeroes in on the things that don’t “fit in” and makes us question the order that cannot accommodate them. From “The Design”:

“None of us have to obey instructions. I consider my own existence proof of that. So much of life is cobbled together when plans go awry. That is often where happiness comes from.”

With Three Moments, Miéville also makes a competent bid to complete a trinity of modern British horror with Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker. The medieval creature that stalks a lesbian in “Säcken,” the slacker/creeper of “The Rabbet,” and the rotting animal head-wearing zombies of “After the Festival” all evoke the gruesome physicality, sexual malaise and uncanny terror of the best of this tradition. Yet he never takes his material entirely seriously, demonstrated by the elaborate goofs of the therapy ninjas in “Dreaded Outcome,” and the teasingly slow reveal of what must be the most un-PC horror film in history in “The Junket.”

Miéville’s phantasmagorical interrogation of reality at times takes on explicitly politically progressive themes. Earlier this year, Christopher Kendrick extensively documented Miéville’s affirming examination of Fantasy writing, left politics and socialism. Three Moments continues the project. In “The Dusty Hat” we are presented with the image of a mummified leftist at a radical political conference, controlled by a sentient quorum of dust residing on his hat. “Covehithe” envisions a world where nature avenges man’s fossil fuel abuse with sunken oil derricks that come to life and rampage Godzilla-like across the Earth. In “The Bastard Prompt” and “Keep,” the dis-eases of modern alienation are manifested in symptoms such as throwing up food someone else ate or the involuntary telekinetic carving of a moat in the earth around oneself.

Three Moments adeptly weaves pop culture savoir-faire, genre-surfing and social relevance into ripping yarns that haunt at an existential level. Here we have a pioneering materialist-fantasist’s re-envisioning of the best traditions of weird fiction.

China Miéville: Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories

New York: Del Rey, 2015

382 pp.

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